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SAUDI ARABIA: Despite 'Desperate Housewives,' media still not free, according to WikiLeaks cable

December 10, 2010 |  7:34 am

Saud papAmerican diplomats appeared pleased with Saudi Arabia's new strategy to control editors and journalists, according to a secret State Department dispatch disclosed this week by the watchdog site WikiLeaks that offered a rare peak into the shadowy mechanisms of censorship in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

The May 11, 2009, diplomatic cable titled "Ideological and Ownership Trends in the Saudi Media" noted approvingly that the government seemed to be opening up to a certain amount of foreign cultural influence in the form of Hollywood movies and television shows while cracking down on Islamist messages deemed too extreme even for the state-approved brand of fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam.

But despite the author of the report's apparent hope that shows like "Desperate Housewives" and "Late Night With David Letterman" would serve as an antidote to some of the more conservative trends in the country, the document makes clear that the government has no intention of ceding control over the message, just tweaking it a little.

Saudi regulatory bodies, which are beholden to the royal family, have evolved to thrive in a dynamic new media environment, switching to a more subtly coercive and decentralized approach. "Instead of being fired or seeing their publications shut down, editors now are fined [$10,600] out of their own salaries for each objectionable piece that appears in their newspaper," the cable read. "Journalists, too, are held to account."

"Objectionable pieces" can include unapproved Islamic teachings and any criticism of the royal family or the government.

The primary responsibility for tracking individual journalists has also been transferred from the Supreme Information Council in Riyadh to local committees in each Saudi city, where authorities can keep a closer watch on journalists.

"If these [ministry of information] operatives detect a problematic pattern in a journalist’s writing (or even hear through channels that he or she is heading down a certain line of inquiry), they will invite the journalist for a chat, during which they will discuss the origin of these perspectives, suggest alternative approaches, ask after the family, etc.," the cable explained. "These mechanisms, our contacts say, have been very effective in reining in media opinion that the [government of Saudi Arabia] doesn’t like."

Editors and media figures who spoke with the report's author described a media environment of selective openness driven by popular demand and new licensing agreements with American companies for Hollywood content.

According to the cable, the government's decision to loosen restrictions on racy American television programming appears motivated by concerns of self-preservation, and does not indicate an overall thaw in censorship, especially when it comes to politics.

"The [Saudi government] has clearly made a strategic decision to open the country to outside opinion, perspectives and culture to root out the vestiges of the extremist ideology and vision that threatened their rule," the report concluded. "At the same time, they have refined their methods of control over editors and journalists in an effort to control the spread of these and other dissident ideas."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: A Saudi man checking the news the old-fashioned way. The Saudi government has evolved to keep up with the changing nature of media. Credit: AP